In Slant Magazine’s review of Belle, critic Tomas Hachard observes: “Like Solomon Northup, then, Dido is an exceptional case whose ‘good luck’ gives us perspective about the horrors of ‘normal life’ for black people at the time.” This is a tacit criticism of Belle which essentially argues that because the titular central character – the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a white Royal Navy captain and a black woman – inherits her deceased father’s healthy sum of money and is raised in an aristocratic household where she is treated as (almost) an equal, Belle is neither truthful nor historically responsible in its depiction of racial inequality in Britain in the late 18th Century.
This is an interesting criticism of Belle, particularly in light of the tremendous praise afforded toward 12 Years a Slave, which Hachard overtly references in his review. Indeed, like Solomon Northup, Dido Elizabeth Belle was a real-life figure who was not born into slavery and spent most of her life in much more equitable and humane circumstances than what was typical for enslaved blacks particularly in the American South. But according to Hachard, because Belle did not work on a plantation nor was she ever beaten into submission like Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey, Belle somehow merits less consideration because it obfuscates the broader, atypical “truths” of captured blacks during the height of slavery.
I use the word “interesting” carefully because Hachard has a point. No doubt, Hollywood’s history of using white protagonists to “sanitize” mainstream audiences into what are essentially black narratives is deeply troubling (see Black Like Me, In the Heat of the Night and Glory). Ignore too much of the cruelty and abuse toward blacks and a film becomes susceptible to (fair) criticisms of culturally conservative historical revisionism (see Mel Gibson in The Patriot). But as defenders of Belle and 12 Years a Slave (and within slightly different contexts, Dances With Wolves and Schindler’s List) would argue, those films are not trying to encapsulate the totality of the black experience. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Belle is how it shows that even when a black woman in Victorian England was able to deviate from the norm by being emancipated, affluent and treated equitably (at least compared to other blacks), she would still suffer as the result of systematic racism, sexism and elitism critical to the continuation of Victorian society.
The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, who at a very young age is reluctantly taken in by her great-uncle, Lord William Murray, Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). Dido grows up alongside her blonde, blue-eyed cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), but when the girls come of age, it is Dido is more sought after as a result of her late father’s inheritance and impressive dowry. This serves as a reminder that romance and affection were rarely afforded in Victorian marriages; there is even an exchange toward the end of the film when Lady Mansfield informs her husband that had she not detected the glimmer in his eyes when he looked at her, she could not have survived the marriage. But for the most part, marriages were essentially economic transactions that, at best, could ensure families prestige and financial survival.
Dido thus becomes engaged to the outwardly dignified Oliver Ashford (James Norton), who tries to ignore the fact that half of his fiancée’s ethnicity comes from “inferior” genetic roots and instead focuses on how Dido’s allowance can ensure economic survival for the Ashfords. But Dido’s true affections are reserved for John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a vicar and aspiring barrister whose family name carries roughly no prestige (underpaid clergy must be a historically universal social phenomenon). Davinier is an abolitionist who, like Dido, feels the sting of Victorian society because of his lack of income and political resistance to the “normative” practice of slavery. Wary of these incompatibilities, Lord Mansfield forbids her from seeing Davinier and would prefer Dido to become overseer of the Mansfield estate (requiring her to remain unwed) rather than debutante.
Two outsiders defying their elders and society through hiding their love for each other? If Belle isn’t the most original story in the world, it should be forgiven as a result of its frank discussion of race (such a rarity in historical dramas like this), as well as its portrayal of complex, ambivalent characters. Consider Lord Mansfield for example. A lesser film would have made him one of two extremes: Either a benevolent champion of racial equality or a malevolent monster. Instead, a much more complicated portrait emerges in Belle – while he sees Dido as an equal, he also recognizes that aristocratic Victorian society is not ready to accept his niece as one of its own. But he isn’t just the obligatory Concerned Parent: He also recognizes that as a result of no male heir, the future prospects for the Mansfield family name relies more heavily on Dido’s marriage than Elizabeth’s, who ironically cannot find a financially sustainable suitor.
Another complicating factor for Mansfield is the major court case he has been charged to make a ruling on. The case (based on the real-life Zong massacre in 1781) involves whether the slaughter of a human cargo onboard a slave ship justifies compensation by insurers; but for the purposes of Belle’s narrative, it essentially provides a convenient dramatic avenue for Lord Mansfield to either publically condone or condemn slavery. In an odd way, this part of the movie feels a little like The Descendants – the patriarch must make the penultimate decision to stand by his beliefs or succumb to social pressure – and although Lord Mansfield’s deepest resolve is never really in doubt, the social conventions applied by aristocratic Victorian society (of whom Mansfield is a proud member) make his declaration less about slavery and more about upholding the bonds of class and status that historically united Victorian England.
If Belle sounds like an episode of Downton Abbey directed by Oprah, there are admittedly times when the story feels predictable. But frankly, novels and movies about Victorian society do not tend to vary that greatly – there is always the pomp and circumstance of balls and arranged marriages and some serious corsets. True love is a luxury ill afforded by the conventions of marriage. True opinions must be suppressed in order to secure favorable social and economic positioning. Women must remain uninformed and subservient, at all costs. These themes and tensions are consistent and even universal (they could apply to 1950s America too).
The real strength of Belle is the way it shows how covert racism reared its ugly face even within supposedly “polite” Victorian society. Sure, there were occasional blatantly racist individuals like Oliver’s vulgar younger brother James, who turns into Jason Alexander in Pretty Woman when he gets a moment alone with Dido. But for the most part, we see that racism was carefully embedded within social decorum, which meant that although it was rarely ever explicitly acknowledged by the “enlightened” aristocracy, it nonetheless still existed. There is a vivid illustration of this toward the end of the film, when a white character who we’ve assumed has carried mannerly attitudes toward Dido instead reveals her true prejudiced attitudes about Dido’s race. In an unusual way, Belle demonstrates how open discussions of race in Victorian society paralleled the taboo nature of sexual desire – the further repressed they were, the longer the injustices and disillusionment of the society remained firmly entrenched.
Rating: 3.5 stars